Ecclesiates 06 – Juneteenth and Christian Humanism

12 For who knows what is good for a person in life, during the few and meaningless days they pass through like a shadow? Who can tell them what will happen under the sun after they are gone? (Read the rest of the chapter, here.)

Getting reacquainted with Ecclesiastes

Time to circle back to Ecclesiastes, the book I promised I’d finish back in May (ha, ha). I want to return to it though, because I find it to be both comforting and grounding, and we all could use more of that right now. There’s an urgency and a gentleness to Ecclesiastes, and there seems no better time to tie that, Christian Humanism, and Juneteenth all together.

Let’s start by reacquainting ourselves with the book: It is a wisdom text attributed to Solomon. A wisdom text shares wisdom with us (surprise!), and differs from earlier narrative books (like Genesis) and later prophetic books (like Isaiah) in that being its focus. Throughout Ecclesiastes the author is referred to as Qohelet, which generally means teacher (more about author in my post on Chapter One.) It’s a short book, and we’re smack in the middle with chapter six, which is all about setting up a question that is answered by the wisdom poems in the following chapters. Basically the question asked is this: what is the best way for humans to spend their short time on earth?

The short-answer to this question is in chapter eight: “Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do…Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.” (vv. 8:7,10) Herein lies the gentleness and urgency: Qohelet wishes us joy and happiness, but also needs us to make the most of our work, whatever it may be.

One of the most disturbing things to Qohelet is the man who cannot enjoy himself, even though God has given him everything he needs for a good life, as discussed in vv. 3-6 of this chapter. Such a person’s lack of happiness could be argued as an affront to God and all Xyr generosity: they have the means, but cannot be satisfied.  (A quick aside: I don’t think this is a condemnation of depression or mental health concerns.  These readings refer to people who have everything at their fingertips, but still have an insatiability and discontentment of their own making.)  Happiness may be our God-given right, and, as Eunny Lee points out in her book The Vitality of Enjoyment in Qohelet’s Theological Rhetoric, it may be our God-given responsibility as well. Indeed, we are ordered in the passage from chapter eight (and elsewhere) to “go and be glad” or some words to that effect.

Christian Humanism: Hope and Immediacy Combined

Which brings me to Christian Humanism, something I’ve discussed before. The more I’m at this Bible reading project, the more I feel “Christian Humanist” is probably the best summation of my beliefs.  I hate falling back on Wikipedia as a source, but I can’t deny their summation is an excellent one: “Christian humanism regards humanist principles like universal human dignity, individual freedom and the importance of happiness as essential and principal components of the teachings of Jesus.” If we are to follow Qohelet’s lead, personal happiness is of the utmost importance to a full Christian life: we are to go and eat our food with gladness, drink our wine with a joyful heart. But personal happiness does not just mean our own personal happiness, it means everyone’s personal happiness. And that is where the working with all our might comes in: we are called to end things that may get in the way of other people’s happiness: racism, sexism, environmental exploitation, economic exploitation-anything that infringes upon the rights and human dignity of another person has got to go.

The Humanist Society of New York states “we owe it to ourselves and others to make it the best life possible for ourselves and all with whom we share this fragile planet.”  While different from Christian charity in its origin (and also hopefully free of some of the worst lingering effects of colonialism and racism), both Humanist and Christian charities are trying to make a better world for the people who live in it, here and now.  Humanists do not believe in an afterlife, so this is our one shot, and I kind of like that urgency. I think Qohelet would appreciate it, as well.

Don’t get me wrong, I still have great hope in the coming resurrection and find much comfort in contemplating Jesus returning to make it all right. But shouldn’t we be doing as much as we can, now?  Maybe my hokey cleaning house analogy will help:  We might not be able to do everything a professional cleaning company can do, like steam the rugs and squeegee the the second-floor windows, but we can do a lot to make things nice before the professionals get there.  Just because we can’t steam the rugs and squeegee the windows doesn’t mean we just throw up our hands and say we can’t do anything.  No, we tackle the messes that we can, and it does makes a difference. The return of Jesus may wipe away the tears from every eye, but we need begin ending sorrow, now.

Juneteenth

So what’s all this have to do with Juneteenth? Let’s back up; what the heck is Juneteenth? Juneteenth commemorates the day Major General Gordon Granger of the Union Army arrived in Galveston, TX – a final strong-hold of white slave-owners (and their slaves) – to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. This happened a full year and a half after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, but that’s the soonest Union Forces had enough power to back up the law. I, personally, think that Juneteenth should take on all the celebratory nature that July 4 currently has; And July 4 should become a day of service and remembrance, when we work to make the ideals espoused by the Founding Fathers come true, while acknowledging the fact that these ideals have never been lived up to by or available to everyone in this country. But that’s just my opinion.

So back to why I want to close out my post talking about happiness and Christian Humanism with a nod to Juneteenth is this: it is a holiday that has a duality to it. Just as Ecclesiastes is both gentle and urgent, just as Christian Humanism is both hopeful and immediate, Juneteenth is both celebratory and bittersweet: we have come so far, yet we still have so far to go. We have work to do, as Qohelet reminds us, as Black Lives Matter reminds us. Oh, yes, do we have some work to do! But we can celebrate at the same time. Let’s celebrate our victories, like marveling at just how many people took to the streets in protest and solidarity in the past weeks, and in last week’s Supreme Court ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County that expands protection for LGBTQ workers, and, on a much smaller scale but of personal importance to me: how many of you have expressed interest in helping end police discrimination through my nascent lobbying campaign (details on my Instagram). Please don’t get me wrong: there is a time for anger, a time for sadness (as Qohelet so elegantly reminds us in Chapter Three), and I’m not trying to tone-police anyone here. But even this hard work is work we can do joyfully.

I hope your Juneteenth was a celebratory day. And if you missed it, may it be a celebratory day for you next year. We cannot know what will happen under the sun after we are gone. We cannot know what next year or even tomorrow holds for us, but I feel a joy, a conviction, that we are moving in the right direction. Let us all do our work, and be glad.

Ruth 02 – Lessons in Allyship from the Pride Community

19 Her mother-in-law asked her, “Where did you glean today? Where did you work? Blessed be the man who took notice of you!”

Then Ruth told her mother-in-law about the one at whose place she had been working. “The name of the man I worked with today is Boaz,” she said.

20 “The Lord bless him!” Naomi said to her daughter-in-law. “He has not stopped showing his kindness to the living and the dead.” She added, “That man is our close relative; he is one of our guardian-redeemers. (Read the rest of the chapter, here.)

Boaz in the Ruth Story

Oh hey Pride Month, I still see you over there, behind the global pandemic and long-overdue nationwide anger over racism. Today, we’re going to pay a little attention to you. Let’s draw analogies between the greater LGBTQ+ community and Boaz, the kinsman-redeemer who saved Ruth and Naomi from poverty and lives as outcasts, because both have lessons to teach the rest of us in how to be a good ally.

First to brush up on the story of Ruth: Ruth was not an Israelite, she was a Moabite who married an Israelite man while he was living in Moab. Now, not only did Ruth’s husband die, but her brother-in-law and father-in-law died, leaving her, her sister-in-law, and mother-in-law, Naomi, destitute. Naomi decides to return to her ancestral lands to see if she can rely upon her community for kindness in her time of need, and Ruth follows her (we can discuss if Ruth’s devotion to Naomi was romantic or not another time, I promise, but that’s not for today’s post). They arrive in Bethlehem, and Ruth sets about gleaning (gathering what is left behind by the harvesters) so she and Naomi won’t go hungry. She catches the eye of Boaz, who provides her successively with: protection in the field, additional food, a promise of marriage, and the legacy of her deceased husband’s name.

You could make the case for Boaz’s interest in Ruth was a calculated one: there was land at stake in marrying her. Perhaps that early kindness is an effort to woo her, and throwing Ruth and Naomi in the land deal at the last minute may have been an effort to deter the heir apparent, but even so, nothing was guaranteed to Boaz. And I’m sure Boaz appreciated a young, possibly beautiful woman becoming his wife. But more than anything Boaz was doing what was right because it was right to help these two women, not what was right because it meant sleeping with Ruth. Boaz shows kindness to Ruth before she shows any interest in coming under his matrimonial protection, because kindness to these two women was important in and of itself. Uplifting these two women meant uplifting and strengthening the larger community, that he gains personally from it (in the form of land and heirs) is the just and Biblical happy-ending for our hero.

Double Shout Out to Pride

This brings me to my double Pride shout out: for their being awesome allies in the fight against COVID and in the most recent Black Lives Matter movement. Boaz did what was right with no expectation of fanfare but also while calling the community to witness (which he does when he convenes the elders in chapter four), and that is also what the Pride community has done in both its handling of COVID and Black Lives Matter.

There was no anger in the fact that Pride events had to be canceled due to COVID, instead the organizers took active steps in protection: The NYC Pride Parade and associated in-person events were canceled all the way back in April. This is a big deal, y’all: last year saw record attendance at nationwide Pride events, and this year is the 50th anniversary of the first pride march (the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, which the 1970 march commemorated, was, of course, last year). Pride organizers and attendees would have every right to be upset that this year’s events have drastically changed. But has a peep of that disappointment made itself public? I haven’t seen any. The Pride community knows that by canceling these events, they are keeping their community, and indeed the larger community, safe and healthy.

Then, when the protests of last month started, the Pride community jumped behind them wholeheartedly: because repression of one group cannot be fully addressed until repression of all groups is recognized. Instead of getting mad that Pride month may be sharing the spotlight this year (no “gay lives matter, too,” though an appropriate #blacktranslivesmatter hashtag has been gaining visibility), LGBTQ+ leaders and individuals have shown an outpouring of sympathy and support. Contrast this with the Michigan COVID protesters angry that they can’t get a haircut, or the tone-deaf individuals insisting “all lives matter,” and it’s pretty clear who has the moral high-ground here.

Being a good ally

I actually hate the word ally, it sounds performative, and it should be redundant: Boaz stood with and for the repressed Naomi and Ruth. Jesus calls us to do the same for the repressed of today. The Pride community has answered that call better than most of us. If we see injustices happening (and no, not being able to get your nails done does not count as an injustice), we, as Christians, are duty-bound to help end those injustices. Boaz gave of both his wealth and his social influence, not to mention the protection of his house and name. So, to all the LGBTQ+ individuals out there holding space for Black Lives Matter, and abiding by safety protocols for COVID quarantines, whether you are Christian or not, I bless you as Naomi blessed Boaz. God sees your heart, and I know Xe is well pleased.

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Luke 15 – Black Lives Matter and Systemic Racism

4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ (Read the rest of the chapter, here.)

An Introduction

The parable of the lost sheep from Luke 15 has been floating around Twitter in context of the Black Lives Matter movement. All three parables from this chapter are about recovering a precious thing that has been endangered, whether it’s a sheep, coin, or prodigal son. These parables are a perfect framework for understanding our role in combating systemic racism. (Not entirely sure what systemic racism is? Check out this short video for a crash course.) It should go without saying everyone is precious to God, but if one person (or in this case, the whole community of our black siblings) is in danger, we are obligated, as Christians, to go to extra lengths to assure their safety. We are being called upon by the black community to end the systemic injustices of this country, and it is morally reprehensible to keep sidestepping our responsibility with weak “all lives matter” statements. If all lives truly did matter, George Floyd’s death would have never happened, and wouldn’t be living through (yet another) nationwide scream of black existential anguish. For those who are curious about the protests – this post is for you. For those wondering what can be done to enact real change, this post is also for you. Please read on.

A first-hand account of the DC Protests, June 1

Let’s start with a brief account of what I saw in DC last Monday. I want to stress the peaceful and productive nature of these protests. Emphasizing relatability to the protesters is something I feel shouldn’t be necessary, but with the amount of fear-mongering going on, it seems to have become so.

I arrived at Lafayette Square, the epicenter of the protests in front of the White House, around noon. A group of maybe fifty had gathered by one, went on our first march, and by the time we returned to Lafayette Square right before two o’clock we were probably 200 strong. Several people spoke to the assembled, mostly seated crowd. I was on the outskirts trying to observe social distancing so I didn’t hear much of what they had to say, but the thrust of the message seemed to be that love radiates outward.

Fifteen or so minutes later I noticed riot cops marching towards us. I was there with two of our farm’s employees, and I got their attention as others were noticing the riot cops as well. Social distancing went out the window as I followed my employees to the front of the barrier. I was there as a white woman to provide whatever protection I could, so I felt it was important for me to be up front and highly visible to the riot cops. I am disheartened that the riot cops were ordered to form a line at that particular moment, because again, everything was being conducted in an incredibly peaceful manner. I want to make this perfectly clear: It was the cops who escalated the situation by deciding to mobilize at that time.

After a stand-off with the cops (who were asked repeatedly to take a knee with us, and invited to join us but refused to engage), the group marched from Lafayette Square to the Capitol Building, where we were met with more cops. There were several hundred people by this point. Around five pm the crowd started moving back in the direction of the White House. A seven PM curfew had been announced, and by six there were already a maze of police vehicles in the downtown area. I have two kids and a farm to take care of, so with great reluctance I bowed to my employees’ wishes to be left behind, and took myself home. My employees stayed and marched through the night. I’m happy to report they made it back here safe the next morning.

One last time I want to reiterate: It was the cops who inflamed the situation in almost every instance I saw. The crowd did an excellent job moderating their own: when agitators targeted teenage boys, knowing they were more likely to lose their cool, older men intervened to separate them. Groups further back from the Lafayette barriers called for those in front to “leave the cops behind and take the streets.” Water, snacks, and hand sanitizer were passed around generously. There was a current of (righteous) anger to be sure – but the people I saw in DC on Monday by and large weren’t there to wreak havoc, but there to see action taken to right wrongs.

Here’s how we can help end systemic racism

And what, beyond justice for George Floyd, are the wrongs that need correcting? This is another place white people are trying so desperately hard to sidestep their responsibilities: Police brutality is not just the actions of a few bad cops, or even a few bad departments. Police brutality is a symptom of systemic racism, and claiming anything else denies societal culpability. What can we do to change the fact that we live in a society that reinforces inequality? I’ve heard several people express confusion on next steps. There are probably as many answers as there are protesters, but below are some broad strokes all of us can help implement. I also encourage you to listen to the June 1 episode of Democracy Now with Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Cornel West, Bakari Sellers, and Tamika Mallory, because this episode helped invaluably in my ability to define the following calls to action.

1. Call the police of this country to justice

George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are just the latest of the hundreds of people of color killed by the police. This doesn’t even account for the individuals who have managed to live through being brutalized or terrorized by police. It also doesn’t account for victims like Ahmaud Arbery, killed by regular citizens who enacted vigilantism knowing, implicitly or explicitly, that the law was on their side because they were white. Individual officers need to be held fully accountable in the court of law. Additionally, police departments nationwide that allowed anything resembling these crimes happen need to be sued as well. I commend the actions of Rebecca Lucero, the Commissoner of Minnesota’s Department of Human Rights, who filed discrimination charges against the Minneapolis Police Department. You can encourage this kind of litigation by calling your own Attorney General and saying you want to see similar action taken. Also, while not a perfect corollary to bringing police to justice, contributing to the National Bail Out Fund helps get black people out of police custody, removing them from the possibility of further violence as quickly as possible.

2. Redistribute funds

A 2017 report by the The Center for Popular Democracy and others found that the US spends a combined $180 billion a year on policing and incarceration. Many metropolitan police departments make up about a third of said cities’ budgets. To compare: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (aka SNAP aka Food Stamps) costs the federal government around $70 billion. Section 8 housing assistance costs the federal government $34 billion.

A lot of the crimes police respond to wouldn’t happen if we had better social safety nets in place. If people didn’t face desperation and poverty every day, we could prevent many of the domestic disturbances, substance abuse, and theft-related crimes caused by that stress. If people had more access to better education and job training we’d see less unemployment and the crimes that often follow. If children had safe places to go before and after school, juvenile delinquency would drop. If we invest in our community up front, there will be far less need to police it down the line. Redistributing large portions of police budgets would help provide the seed money needed for these community betterment projects. Call your local officials – your city councils, your county governments, your sheriffs and boards of supervisors and tell them you want to see this redistribution happen, and that you’ll be voting for representatives that will follow through.

3. Foster a nation-wide effort of reconciliation

To make this as effective as possible, we are going to need legislation that encodes reconciliation efforts, a là existing civil rights laws. With these laws on the books, reconcilation efforts will be enforceable (and hopefully funded). Call your representatives to tell them you want to see this happen.

In the meantime start educating yourself – reading books like White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo or How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi are great places to start. Also, this pamphlet from the William Winters Institute for Racial Reconciliation as well as this list of resources from the Oakland Institute are great references to start local reconciliation efforts. Reach out to your city council, your church, even your parent teacher organizations and say you would like to see reconciliation efforts started. If you are willing to start coalition building (the first step towards reconciliation), even better.

I want to leave you with a Victor Hugo quote that I saw on Monday: “If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.” Black Lives Matter is a movement that impacts all of us, down to our very souls. Do you really want to answer to our all-loving God that you disagreed with protester tactics, or didn’t know what was going on, or that you just couldn’t be bothered? Where is the Christian love in those answers? Your humanity is at stake here. Do not be the one who causes more darkness, for it will darken your own soul, as well.

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